Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Too much meat

"As societies become more prosperous and more urban, they tend to consume more meat. This dietary transformation has been explored in detail by Vaclav Smil*, among others. The basic issue is that meat is a roundabout and energy-inefficient way to get nutrients to the human population. To fatten a cow by one kilogram, around eight kilograms of feed grains must be fed to the cow, but if we take into account the fact that much of the cow is bone and fat, each kilo of edible meat product has used around thirteen kilograms of feed grains. The huge burden of meat consumption on land use should be apparent. To raise that many kilos of feed, we require massive pasturelands if the animals graze or vast croplands if the feed grain is obtained by the production of cereals, soybeans, and other farm products.
Currently, meat consumers do not face pricing that reflects the environmental consequences of their actions, in terms of the loss of biodiversity implicit in land use, in the costs of providing the freshwater, and in the environmental losses associated with the industrial production of feed grains and livestock (for example, the eutrophication of the waterways, with the consequent destruction of marine life). Meat is dramatically underpriced relative to plant products if we take into account the environmental costs of producting it. With more accurate environmentally based pricing (for example, charging appropriate prices for water use and grazing on pasturelands) and more accurate consumer information, it is likely that today's meat consumption would decline markedly, and would not rise as rapidly as it is in China, India, and other fast-growing markets. Given the adverse health consequences of a diet rich in red meats, the public health would also benefit markedly from such a policy."

* Vaclav Smil, Feeding the World: A Challenge for the Twenty-First Century (Boston, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000).

Jeffrey Sachs, Common Wealth, Economics for a crowded planet, chapter "A home for all species".

This is an example where I fail to live up to my set of values ! I like meat too much and cannot restrict my consumption volontarily, even if I know that if everybody on Earth ate as much meat as myself, there would not be enough pasturelands to raise the cattle. And even if I was determined enough to restrict my meat consumption, I am sure the majority of people like me would not follow me, so the problem would persist. The solution is therefore to put an economic incentive, like Jeffrey Sachs advocates, i.e. to reflect the true environmental costs in the price of meat. I am always amazed that a hamburger costs less than a salad in a fastfood ! Such abberation should change...

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Water stress and conflict in Africa

A plausible deep root for Africa's problems (see also this post):

"A notable scientific contribution in establishing [the] link [between rising water stress and conflict] was made by Edward Miguel and his colleagues, who found that "drops in rainfall [in Africa] are associated with significantly more conflict...
There is strong evidence that better rainfall makes conflict much less likely in Africa."* The key link seems to be that a decline in rainfall causes the economy to shrink, presumably through the adverse effects on harvests and food supply, and this in turn triggers conflict. What is important is that when the authors compared the explanatory power of rainfall with political variables (such as democracy, ethnic cleavages, religious divisions, colonial heritage) in accounting for the location, and timing of conflicts in Africa, the rainfall variable was more important than the political variables. The research team concluded as follows: "The most obvious reading of these findings is that economic factors trump all others in causing African civil conflicts, and that institutional and political characteristics have much less of an impact."**"

* Edward Miguel, Shanker Satyanath, and Ernest Sergent, "Economic Shocks and Civil Conflict: An Instrumental Variables Approach", Journal of Political Economy 112, no. 4 (2004), pp. 725-753.
** Edward Miguel, "Poverty and Violence", in Lael Brainard and Derek Chollet, eds., Too Poor for Peace? Global Poverty, Conflict and Security in the 21st Century (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institute Press, 2007), p. 55.

Jeffrey Sachs, Common Wealth, Economics for a crowded planet, chapter "Securing our water needs".

This is a very worrying relationship, as water stress is forecasted to increase in many places on Earth, as global warming intensifies ! As Jeffrey Sachs adds:

"Water scarcity is, so far, mainly responsible for conflicts within countries rather than between them, yet cross-border confrontations will also become more likely to arise as water stress becomes more extreme."

Thursday, December 18, 2008

On the U.S. not signing the Kyoto Protocol

"The Kyoto commitments were very modest (a 5 percent reduction) and short term (till 2012). At best, the treaty formed a very early step to set the world on a carbon management trajectory. Even so, the protocol generated a political firestorm in the United States. The so-called Byrd-Hagel Senate Resolution, passed 95-0 in 1997 in the lead-up to the final round of negociations on the Kyoto Protocol, held that "... the disparity of treatment between Annex I Parties* and Developing Countries and the level of required emission reductions, could result in serious harm to the United States economy." The resolution thereby made it the sense of the Senate that the United States should reject any new commitments that did not also limit the developing countries. The resolution exemplifies the declining sense of global responsibility felt by U.S. politicians, because it conveniently and even self-righteously puts aside the small detail that the United States, with just 5 percent of the world's population, accounts for one quarter of the world's emissions ! Here is the United States, far and away the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, indignantly telling poor countries bearing the consequences in famines, droughts, increased malaria transmission, and more that the United States will not even start on emissions control because the developing countries are not yet bound to do so."

Jeffrey Sachs, Common Wealth, Economics for a crowded planet, chapter "Global solutions to climate change".

* high-income signatory countries.

I really hope that things are going to change with Obama as the next U.S. President, for the follow-on to the Kyoto Protocol, to be negociated next year...

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Sustainability has to be a choice

"We must keep remembering that complex global problems can be solved by collective global goal setting, reliance on scientific evidence, mobilization of technology, and most crucially, thinking ahead. We will have to appreciate, with urgency, that the ecological challenges will not solve themselves in a "self-organizing" manner. Markets, we have emphasized, won't do the job by themselves. Social norms do not suffice. Governments are often cruelly short-sighted. Sustainability has to be a choice, a choice of a global society that thinks ahead and acts in unaccustomed harmony."

Jeffrey Sachs, Common Wealth, Economics for a crowded planet, chapter "The anthropocene".

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Neither doomed, nor saved by the "invisible hand"

"The world is facing enormous ecological and environmental problems, but running out of natural resources is not the right way to describe the threat. Earth has the energy, land, biodiversity, and water resources needed to feed humanity and support long-term economic prosperity for all. The problem is that markets might not lead to their wise and sustainable use. There is no economic imperative that will condemn us to deplete our vital resource base, but neither is there an invisible hand that will prevent us from doing so. The choice will be ours to make through public policy and global cooperation."

Jeffrey Sachs, Common Wealth, Economics for a crowded planet, chapter "Our crowded planet".

Monday, December 1, 2008

R & D financing

"When R & D* is aimed mainly for general scientific knowledge, the needs of the poor, the global commons, or rapid social uptake, public financing is advantageous compared with reliance on patents. When R & D is targeted mainly for the rich or private use or gradual uptake, the patent-based incentives are relatively advantageous. In general, a healthy innovation system will use a mix of public financing and patents. For global sustainable development, the mix of public financing and private incentives should be harmonized globally to ensure that the needs of the poor and the global commons are properly addressed and financed by shared contributions of the world's governments."

Jeffrey Sachs, Common Wealth, Economics for a crowded planet, chapter "Our crowded planet".

* Research and Development